My friend Elizabeth told me the other day that she had received a phone call from the United States Marines. They weren’t interested in her but in her son, Garrett, who is a recent high-school graduate currently absorbed in taking the exam for his journeyman’s plumber license. She said that she told the Marines not to phone again and advised the caller that the Marines were “not going to use my son as a target.”
She and her son are not alone in such opinions. This year, the Army will fail to make its recruiting goals even though it’s dangling ever more goodies -- like college tuition and chunks of cash—in front of the teenagers it hopes to enlist. Now there’s talk of accepting spry persons over 40 years of age to risk life and limb pro gloria dei and, I guess, patriae too.
One of the Army’s problems is that it gets harder to find gullible galoots who believe the promises. Bitter veterans abound with angry stories about care withheld or the quality of the care offered men and women once they leave the services. Nor does it help that potential enlistees are shy of signing up because they fear they may never get out once they are in. The government has broken its word too often. So sing the National Anthem twice at the ball game and put another “I SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” sticker on one or even all of the family cars. Hey, it ain’t my war, ain’t my kid.
Many people could care less about President George W. Bush’s war to protect freedom. They were free enough, in their own estimation, before this President and his six predecessors embarked on the current set of policies in the Middle East. Now they have to wonder if, whether they go abroad or stay home, they will be murdered by a Muslim. It ain’t our war, but it is occurring to some of us that Mr. Bush could get a lot of us killed or maimed -- which might be worse than death, since many of us don’t have adequate health insurance. Imagine surviving having your legs blown off by an Islamo-terro-guerrillo-fanatico bombardier and then being hounded to death by hospital bill collectors.
Successive administrations have provoked, intruded on, aggressed against, irritated and invaded Arab nations and interests, and now the present administration has gotten us into a frightful shadow war against whom we don’t quite know. It is destroying our peace of mind and, step by step, doing the same to our personal liberty.
In what he styles his war against terrorism, Mr. Bush’s single accomplishment has been to extend the war against Arabs to include non-Arab Muslims. This is what he has accomplished through his invasion of Iraq, where democracy reigns and the enemy is always on the verge of extinction. It is an opinion not shared by all. The New York Times recently noted that “the guerrillas and terrorists battling the American-backed enterprise [in Iraq] appear to be growing more violent, more resilient and more sophisticated than ever.” Further down in this story, these disconcerting words appear: “ … Americans acknowledge that they are no closer to understanding the inner workings of the insurgency or stemming the flow of foreign fighters, who are believed to be conducting a vast majority of suicide attacks.” Moreover, if Americans don’t want to fight in Baghdad, plenty of Iraqis do. The other side is experiencing little trouble in recruiting suicide bombers and other sorts of fighters.
The rationale for persisting in this stalemated, if not lost, military effort offered by Mr. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of our stout-hearted, stay-at-home politicians is that if we don’t fight them in Iraq, we will have to fight them here or in England. Duh? With every passing month since the enemy destroyed the Twin Towers and killed thousands of people, the other side has demonstrated that there is no place it cannot reach with homicidal effect. Every month, more guards, more searches, more intrusions, more cops, more sirens, more cameras, more stopping of people, more dress rehearsals for disaster, more fright, more clamping down, more boots on the ground -- not in Iraq, but in New York.
Whatever they may have said about confining the terror to Iraq, land of smoking ruins and wailing orphans, the actions of the men and women running this country betray their fear and impotence. By their actions, they are telling us that they cannot make good on their promise to protect us. The record bears them out. In the years since the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center, terror and/or the fear of it has come to our communities, places of work and homes. It has become the water-cooler and dinner-table talk of an American nation whose elected officials can hardly speak of anything else.
The reasons given out for the growing power of the other side vary. For a while, it was a sinister network of evil finance paying for the terrorists. Currency controls were put in place, making it easier for the government to know your business, if not the terrorists’. Talk of financing terrorism has given way to the claim that outsiders have inundated Iraq, not only to kill us there but to be trained to kill us here.
In the past few months, Mr. Bush has begun to speak of our fight against an “ideology” based in no state, of no national identity. That’s new. But what does he mean when he uses the word? Is “ideology” a code word for religion? Is this struggle being quietly redefined as a Muslim-Christian battle, with those who do not belong to the strident elements in either religion being left in the dark about it?
At one point, the enemy seemed to have come out of a kind of pan-Arabism, but now it is way beyond Arabs. It is Pakistanis, it is native-born Englishmen, it is any Muslim --regardless of where he hails from -- who goes into one of those madrassahs where war against us is taught. On our own side, there are reports that the U.S. Air Force Academy has been converted into a kind of Christian madrassah. Are crazed fractions of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations infiltrating, penetrating and preparing to use any means they think necessary to murder the rest of us?
The Bush-Blair strategy of fighting them over there so we do not have to fight here is a failure. The oceans, so long a protection for America against foreign enemies, cannot defend us. Our armies overseas cannot defend us. We must fall back on Homeland Security, which has roused itself in the last couple of weeks and has begun searching the belongings of subway passengers.
Politically, that may make sense. It appeases the growing anxieties of a public, which is beginning to take seriously the warnings about terrorists getting hold of unguarded Russian nuclear material and other horrible chemical and biological possibilities for mass killings.
But if politics is behind starting the subway searches, politics all but guarantees that nobody of interest will be caught. Politics prohibits racial profiling, even though we know that most terrorists -- so far, at least -- have an Arab or South Asian background. Politics demands that all are treated equally, which means that ancient ladies of Japanese ancestry and bouncy-jouncy Swedish girls will have to be searched, thereby diverting the cops from going after subjects who at least fit the stereotype.
If random searches of people in the subways are being done for anything except political effect, it’s nonsense. The decision to search is a confession of helplessness. It is saying that the police and Homeland Security don’t know who the enemy is, so maybe they can get lucky and spot one among the thousands racing to catch the A train.
Analyze it: The chances of seizing a terrorist in the middle of rush hour are almost zero. If the authorities had any idea who the would-be terrorists are or where they’re lurking or what kind of terror weapon they intend to use, they would grab them and clap them onto an airplane for “rendition” to some far-off place where the ACLU cannot get at them.
The Patriot Act, the bewildering reorganizations of the various federal police and intelligence organizations, the billions spent on electronic claptrap, the studies, reports and surveys by the commissions, committees and agencies have netted us next to nothing in the way of enhanced safety.
In the present atmosphere, the suggestion that there may be a disconcertingly large quotient of stumblebums, lazy bums and crooked bums handling our homeland security is treated as little short of sedition. That fact, coupled with the conviction that criticism of the war which is being waged but not won is unpatriotic, leaves us with but one course of action: to go on doing the same things.
Nicholas von Hoffman’s latest book, A Devil’s Dictionary of Business, has just been published by Nation Books. Thanks to Carl Bromley of Nation Books.
Other Articles by Nicholas von Hoffman